The US nuclear weapons complex needs a new role

By Kennette Benedict | April 10, 2014

The US nuclear weapons complex is in disarray, disrepair, and perhaps dissolution. In 2000, Washington created the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to better manage the facilities that make up the complex, which include the national laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, as well as sites that maintain, dismantle, and produce components for nuclear weapons. But as a Congressional commission led by former Under Secretary of the Army Norman Augustine and retired Adm. Richard Mies recently concluded, the NNSA has failed in its mission. In their testimony of March 24, 2014, Augustine and Mies cite two major reasons.

First, thanks to a lack of leadership, the nuclear weapons laboratories have been left without a clear mission. Set up in the middle of the last century to research and design nuclear weapons, their old mission doesn’t make much sense nearly 25 years after the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Arsenals comprised of thousands of nuclear weapons are no longer needed, but neither the United States nor Russia has devised a national security policy that moves beyond the flawed assumptions of nuclear deterrence. That leaves them with weapons that have little purpose, but are so dangerous that they must be maintained so they don’t accidentally go off.

Second, the privatization of the nuclear weapons laboratories has had a major impact. Augustine and Mies write that privatization has resulted in a “flawed … governance model” at the NNSA; a lack of “sound management practices;” a “dysfunctional management and operations relationship,” and “uneven collaboration with customers”—the “customers” being the NNSA and the Energy Department, which oversees it.

Casual observers may wonder why nuclear weapons research and maintenance was turned over to the private sector in the first place. It followed a bout of high-level panic over phantom security breaches in the late 1990s. After Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos, was thought to have shared information with the Chinese government (which in fact he never did), US policymakers created the NNSA. The new agency turned to private contractors, including Booz Allen Hamilton, Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, and Honeywell, to take over everyday management of the labs. However, as Tyler Przybylek, former general counsel for the NNSA, remarked at the Sixth Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit in February, “profits and nuclear weapons don’t mix.” At the same meeting, acting NNSA director Bruce Held went even further, saying that the high fees the government pays the private contractors running the labs weren’t producing scientific breakthroughs to meet new threats to national security. He proposed that NNSA sites be managed in the “public interest.”

“I don’t think we need national laboratories to aspire to be the low-cost producer of widgets. I don’t think that’s why national laboratories exist,” he said. “The low-cost producer role belongs to the American private sector. The American private sector knows how to do that very well. What we need national laboratories for is to take on really hard technical challenges that are facing our nation and our national policymakers—take on high-risk, hard problems that involve too much risk for the private sector to honestly support.”

This outsourcing makes for the strangest of role reversals. Private firms began running government laboratories that produce nuclear weapon designs in order to meet national security goals, inverting the customary relationship of government to private business. In wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have gotten used to the idea of private firms supplying logistical support and even private security services to military troops. But placing nuclear weapons design and maintenance—the US nuclear deterrent—in the hands of private business takes the outsourcing of government services to a new extreme.

To be fair, private firms have expressed their own frustrations in trying to manage the national labs, even as government scientists have voiced dissatisfaction with these private managers. The executives at Bechtel, Honeywell, and Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group, among others, have puzzled at the government’s expectations. They have found that government-supported projects are generally undercapitalized at the outset and that even multi-year projects are funded from year to year through the Congressional budget process, which is fraught with uncertainty these days. In addition, private firms are required to use existing facilities at the labs for new projects, rather than building new plants with up-to-date technologies to produce new prototypes and components. In other words, normal government practices are simply outside the experience of these private businesses. Public agencies generally make do with the communications and information technology at hand, rarely have adequate funding for infrastructure upgrades, and, unlike private companies, cannot simply abandon old facilities in order to take on new projects.

It didn’t help that policy makers placed government laboratories in the hands of private sector managers at a time when these institutions essential to the Cold War no longer had a war to fight. But it’s the lack of a new mission, more than privatization, that is the great failing.

After initial US and Russian moves to reduce arsenals, dismantle weapons, secure fissile material, and downblend enriched uranium for civilian use, the heroic steps initiated by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War have been followed with only timid efforts to rethink the purpose of nuclear weapons in US national security policy. The most robust public discussion seems to focus on the high financial cost of these weapons of mass destruction, with critics hoping that downward pressure on the federal budget will require cuts to the nuclear weapons program. The result of this timidity is confusion about both the purpose of the nuclear weapons laboratories and the role of nuclear weapons in US national security—a confusion made more acute by US President Barack Obama’s calls for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Confusion and the resulting indecision on these two points is resulting in institutional decay and leaving government programs teetering on the edge of collapse. There may be sufficient funds to keep scientists on the payroll, but without consensus about purpose and an assured financial future, laboratories will crumble, morale will flag, and security may well be compromised. Already the president of B&W Pantex, which operates a nuclear weapons dismantling facility in Texas, has warned that critical safety systems are at risk because workers are cannibalizing existing systems when replacement parts are no longer available. More mundane problems, like broken plumbing, undermine workers’ morale.

The greatest irony is that US leaders turned over management of the nuclear weapons complex to the private sector at the very moment that there should have been an open debate about the public purposes of the laboratories and facilities. As Held put it, “. . . if we use a metrics approach to drive performance at national laboratories, we will be driving the national laboratories toward lower and lower risks; we will be driving them to produce widgets.” He added: “We don’t need them to produce those. We need them to really think big and take on big challenges.”

Already we’ve seen hints of a possible future role for the laboratories. Despite an overall lack of direction, the scientists at the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories are using their knowledge for new medical applications, for environmental remediation, and to develop new energy sources, among other innovations. These may be just the projects that many citizens would favor, and that the world needs to meet the challenges of disease and climate change. But only with open public and political support will the nuclear weapons laboratories be reinvented as the national security laboratories—the name they already prefer.

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